The Dark Knight (2008): A Masterpiece That Explores Virtue, Liberty and the Nature of Humanity

The Dark Knight

    “The Dark Knight” is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is more than just a great Batman film, it is a classic that illustrates just how great the medium of storytelling can be through the use of film. The best films can capture the best and worst of humanity and ask us questions about what it means to be ourselves. The best films challenge are assumptions and “The Dark Knight” is one of those films. This is also the Batman film with two of my favorite Batman villains. Both the Joker and Two-Face are two of the more complex Batman Rogues of all time and most of the stories that explore them are at least good.

     The film was directed, written and produced by Christopher Nolan who wrote it along with Jonathan Nolan. The film was produced by Emma Thomas and Charles Roven.

   The story involves Batman (Christian Bale) a year into his time protecting Gotham and explores the rise of the Joker (Heath Ledger) who escalates the war as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) target the Mob with Batman and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) leading to the mob putting their fate in the Joker’s hands.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is the best it’s ever been in the “The Dark Knight Trilogy.” The contrasts of light and dark are best illustrated in the transformation of Harvey Dent and Two-Face and the scenes involving the Joker or Batman and the Joker together. This is a story of contrasts and the cinematography captures it beautifully. Wally Pfister once again did a great job.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard created their best soundtrack thus far as we get the haunting theme of the Joker mixed with rising tension intermixed throughout the score. The story feels on edge because of how the music weaves so seamlessly with the plot. The aura of terror never goes away.

The Writing – The Nolan Brothers when they write together are better than when one of them teams up with Goyer. I think this is probably due to them understanding each other better which in turn allows them to explore the characters better and work the themes in without having what little fat there was in “Batman Begins.” The fact that it takes inspiration from “The Killing Joke” and “The Long Halloween” (two of my favorite “Batman” comics) is part of what gives the writing so much power. It pulls from great stories.

The World – The World is rich and feels lived in. From Sal Maroni taking over the Mob, the politics and corruption within both the District Attorney’s office and the Police and the politics between them. Batman is the one who holds this brittle vase together but the Joker gives it the push that makes it all fall apart.

The Characters – The characters are amazing in this. From the minor characters who were once faceless antagonists, to the large characters who express the themes of the story. The characters in this are a lot better than I realized until my most recent viewing.

Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow – He has a small role and is taken out early by Batman. The fact that he survived for so long is to his credit. He’s pretty minor compared to Joker and Two-Face is what the film shows as well as that he and Batman are both fit for Arkham.

Commissioner Loeb – Loeb actually gets exploration in this! We see all he’s doing to take out the mob and the consequences he takes for it, like his heavy drinking which makes it easier for the Joker to kill him. I like that we actually get to know the character this time.

Mayor Garcia – The Mayor is pretty great in this too as we see his courage in how he goes forward with the parade to honor Loeb and to give Harvey Dent the power he needs to go after the mob. I liked this character and wanted to get to know him more. His “real talk” with Harvey Dent is a powerful scene as it illustrates the growing war as the Joker’s victim is hanging at the Mayor’s window after the talk.

Detective Ramirez – Ramirez is a great character. She’s flawed as she’s looking out for her mother and this leads to her being in with the mob. We see that she isn’t all bad though she’s just ruled by fear which leads to her getting Gordon’s family to Two-Face. She is the symbol of the broken system.

Lau – Lau is a great character. The fact that he saves the Mob’s money on his own is great and he would have won if not for Batman ignoring international borders (one reason I don’t believe the 8 years or Retirement in “The Dark Knight Rises”). He ends up being burned alive on a pile of money buy the joker showing his role reversed as in the mob he was the most powerful person for protecting the money, but in the Joker’s city money means nothing.

Sal Maroni – Sal is great, he has a young arrogance about him that makes him fun anytime he’s on screen. He’s also a guy who can’t see all that long term as he is the one lets the Joker run havoc all over Gotham and in turn he can’t even escape because of it as Two-Face is waiting for him, changed by the Joker and with it Sal’s choice comes back to end him. In that way, he’s tragic in his own way.

Lucius Fox – Freeman gets more exploration in this as we see his ideals are strong on the side of personal liberty (one reason he might like Batman as an individual under no one) and when he stand against Batman’s NSA Spying Machine we see that it doesn’t matter how much he likes Bruce, he won’t let him become the Emperor of Gotham. No individual in Gotham should have all the power and Lucius stands by this even as he uses the machine once to help catch the Joker.

James Gordon – Gordon’s story in this is a tragedy. We see his distrust of Harvey Dent yet his belief in him too and how all of that is lost when the Joker breaks Harvey and James in unable to save Rachel Dawes. He is promoted to Commissioner when Loeb is murdered and never catches a break after that. For much of the film he is trying to save people from the Joker as the Joker is always one step ahead and the war against the Mob that he was working on with Batman and Harvey becomes nothing. In the end the war nearly costs him the life of his son though it does cost the life of Harvey Dent, which is something he is never able to live down as he embraces the lie that Batman killed Harvey Dent and hiding Dent becoming Two-Face.

Alfred – Alfred is great in this as Caine gives the mentor role power again. In this he illustrates how much it takes to defeat some enemies as we learn that Alfred was a pretty terrible person in Burma as he burned down an entire forest to catch one thief. This metaphor leads Batman to creating his NSA spying device showing that Batman did learn from Alfred and embraced the worst aspects of the fascist state that Alfred had once worked for. Luckily they both move on from that, but it shows how far both of them will go, in a way proving the Joker’s point about people.

Bruce Wayne / Batman – This is the film that tests the limits of Batman’s code as we see him fighting a losing war against the Joker when the Mob unleashes him when Batman, Gordon and Dent have almost defeated them. He never leaves his ideals of not killing in this but we see how far he’s willing to go as he metaphorically burns the forest of Gotham by spying on everyone to catch the Joker. It’s powerful and shows that Batman is willing to become a villain to stop a villain. In that way he is the Emperor of Gotham as the narrative of the Emperor being chosen in times of trial in Rome to protect the populace and how it lead to it becoming a permanent position. Batman not only loses his love in this and the respect of the city, but he loses his purpose as well as the Joker is proven right in many ways with the “Tragedy of Harvey Dent.”

Dark Knight Joker

The Joker – The Joker is an anarchist who lives to upset the status quo. He loves playing with people’s mind and comes up with different stories related to his scars to get into the heads of whoever his enemy is. Heath Ledger’s performance is one of the best villain performances of all times and is a classic for a reason. There is a reason you see at least one his Joker’s on Halloween or Comic Cons. His point is that humanity is just animals and civilization is a lie, so the only way to live is to live uninhibited by rules and he does this by destroying powerful figures or breaking them to make his points true. it is enough to turn Harvey Dent into Two-Face even if his “Prison Experiment” using the ferries doesn’t work. He doesn’t care about his life (as seen when he lets Harvey Dent flip the coin on his life) and lives purely for his ideals. For him the ideals are enough (like Batman) and like Batman it gives him power and makes him a symbol that can never fully be defeated. Even though Batman physically defeats him at the end (but is unable to kill him). R.I.P. Heath Ledger, you not only changed cinema forever but the culture with the character you played.

Dark Knight Two-Face

Harvey Dent / Two-Face – Harvey Dent is the idealist who in many ways represents humanity’s potential to rise to ideals and to fall into despair. His fall into Two-Face happens when he realizes all his plans to stop the mob are falling apart and his allies can’t even save the woman he loves. This makes him easy prey for the Joker who turns him into Two-Face leading to him embracing chance as his code of justice as he saw the law was unable to trap and prosecute the Joker, stop the Mob or save Rachel. In the end Two-Face is despair and in becoming a “Punisher” like vigilante proves the Joker’s point about how anyone can become a killer after a really bad day.

Liberty v. Security – Liberty v. Security is a major theme in this as we see Batman impeding on Liberty to stop the Joker when he taps into everyone’s cell phones. His very existence is an infringement upon Liberty too in a way as he is above the law yet enforces them. The Joker is one of the answers to this as is Lucius Fox who show that becoming a Dictator isn’t the answer.

Does Vigilantism Help? – Does becoming a vigilante help? We see in this that it probably doesn’t. From inexperienced look alikes who dress up like Batman and put themselves and others at risk and in turn lead to the rise of the Joker, who was never on the scene until Batman appeared. The question is never fully answered as Batman does capture the Joker, but since he might have helped create the Joker in the first place…does Batman’s existence help or hinder more in the end?

Fascism v. Anarchy – The main theme is one of fascism versus Anarchy. Batman is fascism incarnate as he is above the police and the law and enforces his own brand of justice that is everything but killing. In answer to that there is the Joker who seeks to destroy all systems that uphold the law so the people can do whatever they want and become their base selves. While Batman seeks to scare others into becoming their best selves.

Codes – The Joker’s code is that a person should live how they want and that life itself doesn’t matter, what is important is tearing down structures of power to get people back to their basic selves. Batman doesn’t kill because he sees the good in people and sees Batman as the hope that can inspire that. Harvey’s ideal at first is to the law and using it to stop corruption. It isn’t until he loses everything that his ideal becomes chance as he blames chance and entropy on all his sorrow.

The Nature of Humanity – Is humanity good or bad at it’s base? The Joker would say bad as shown by how the city turned on itself when he caused fear and terror while Batman who belives that humans are good as shown by the Ferry Experiment where the prisoners and civilians don’t kill each other…showing that humans can rise above their fears like he did. Who is right? That’s really up to you as throughout human history you will find proof of both, though I think there is more on the Joker’s side…humans have historically been far more cruel and selfish than good and giving.

Okay: Rachel Dawes – Rachel Dawes is an idea and never gets beyond that. For Harvey she’s the thing worth living for that feeds his idealism and keeps him strong, for Bruce Wayne she’s the way out of him being Batman and having a normal life. For both she is an escape and her death triggers the change in both our characters. She’s a plot device so never becomes great. She always is just okay.

Pacing – The pacing is alright but doesn’t quite work. There are many times where the film feels like the climax has happened but before you know 3 more climactic events have happened. This is the only real downside the film has besides Rachel Dawes.

    “The Dark Knight” manages to make even it’s minor characters compelling, even as the main drama goes down between Gordon, Dent, the Joker and Batman through whose perspectives we explore the ideas and get the drama. This film isn’t afraid to tackle big ideas and the possible consequences of thBose ideas. Not only that we get to see it through the eyes of fascinating villains or compelling heroes we care about. This gives power to the consequences are characters make that illustrate the ideas the film explores. These deeper ideas and complex characters keep me coming back and this is a film I will never grow tired of. It is always worth a second look as he each time the ideas are explored by the characters it gives a chance to explore one’s own thoughts on the answers to the questions. This film is one of the greatest films of all time.

Final Score: 10 / 10

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